The Ultimate Guide to SEO Translation & SEO Localisation in 2023
We’d normally begin an article like this with a huge claim: “If you’re not doing SEO translation & SEO localisation, you’re missing out on 80% of the world’s search traffic!” Or we’d try to raise your awareness with stats about how much money you could be losing by ignoring foreign markets.
We’re not going to do that. Because if you’re here, chances are you’re already aware of the importance of adapting your SEO efforts to global markets.
What you probably need instead is a step-by-step guide that will show you exactly how to appeal to and convert in foreign markets with your multilingual SEO strategy. And that’s exactly what we’re going to give you.
In this post:
- What is SEO translation?
- SEO translation vs SEO localisation
- Who needs SEO translation and SEO localisation?
- Benefits of SEO localisation for businesses
- What qualifies someone as an expert in SEO localisation?
- Factors to consider for the success of your SEO localisation efforts
- Do SEO translators use CAT tools?
- Is there a place for machine translation in SEO localisation?
What is SEO translation?
SEO translation is the process of translating website content and adapting SEO elements to target foreign audiences and capture global search engine traffic. This includes everything from translating website copy and transcreating titles to rewriting meta tags and replacing links.
SEO translation is a discipline that falls within multilingual SEO, which is the practice of optimising SEO campaigns and content – linguistically, visually, and functionally – for different languages, to rank higher in search engine result pages for foreign markets.
As a subset of multilingual SEO, SEO translation is just one of the various aspects that multilingual SEO covers.
Note: Multilingual SEO isn’t the same as international SEO, though.
The meaning of SEO translation could be summed as the practice of translating and adapting content to improve its visibility in search engine results pages for foreign markets. The aim is to make your SEO-translated content more accessible and relevant to users who speak different languages, which can ultimately lead to increased traffic and conversions.
SEO translation vs SEO localisation
As it turns out, SEO translation is a misnomer: the process of optimising content for foreign markets includes more than just translating words.
Effective SEO translation considers cultural preferences and local search habits to ensure that content resonates with the target audience. What’s the point of translating your content if in the end it doesn’t read right, or doesn’t use the terms and expressions your audience is accustomed to, or nobody is searching for it?
This process of adapting content to match local cultural preferences is known as localisation. That’s why SEO localisation has emerged as a more accurate term to describe the practice of making a website’s content fit for a foreign market. To those outside the international SEO world, however, SEO translation remains the term of choice.
Some online sources (here’s another one) claim that there’s an actual conceptual difference between SEO translation and SEO localisation, with SEO translation aiming “to improve searchability” while SEO localisation aims to “improve searchability and make you more relatable to your audience.”
The problem with this explanation is that it paints SEO translation as badly-executed SEO localisation, where content is translated, but not adapted. Because you cannot improve the searchability of content without taking into account local cultural preferences and search habits, any translation that fails to consider both isn’t “SEO translation” but “regular translation of digital content”.
To recap, SEO translation and SEO localisation are two different terms for the same process (the former, used vernacularly and more often than the latter), which involves:
- Finding appropriate target-language keywords through multilingual keyword research
- Optimising title tags and meta descriptions to make them appealing for the target market
- Identifying culturally relevant topics
- Adjusting the URL structure and even the domain name for each market
- Engaging target-language SEO copywriters when original content becomes necessary
- Replacing links with locally relevant ones
- Writing and adapting meta tags for each market
And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Who needs SEO translation and SEO localisation?
International businesses who understand the utmost importance of localisation in a globalised world know that there’s no point in localising their marketing collateral if nobody can find it in the target market. Just like the source language copy needs to rank high on search engines, so do their several localised versions.
However, multinational companies aren’t the only ones with a growing interest in SEO translation and SEO localisation (I’ll soon switch to just “SEO localisation” now that we’ve established that they’re the same thing).
We often come across business owners who originally expected their market to be regional or national, create a website, and find that they are receiving international inquiries about their services or orders from other countries. They then decide to launch a multilingual website or app and to create content in several languages – this is where multilingual SEO that includes specialist SEO translation services come into the picture.
Benefits of SEO localisation for businesses
There are plenty of reasons why you should consider optimising your website for multiple languages. Here are a few of the most significant benefits that well-executed SEO localisation can bring to your business:
- Increased brand awareness and reach
- Increased traffic and ROI
- Increased leads and conversions
- Lower bounce rates and higher dwell times
- Savings on paid search campaigns
- A cutting edge over the competition
Increased brand awareness and reach
When you make your website findable in different languages, you’re increasing its reach and visibility. You’ll also be able to show up for searches in multiple languages, which will help you reach new audiences and boost brand awareness.
Increased traffic and ROI
If executed correctly, a multilingual SEO strategy can do wonders for your website’s traffic and ROI. A website that’s optimised for multiple languages is bound to have a higher ROI than a monolingual one.
Increased leads and conversions
By increasing brand awareness and reach, you’ll also be able to increase leads and conversions. And since you’ll be able to target multiple languages, the sky’s the limit when it comes to potential conversions.
Lower bounce rates and higher dwell times
Have you ever clicked on a link to a website, only to be greeted by a page that’s in a language you don’t understand? If so, you probably immediately bounced off the site.
The same thing happens when foreign visitors land on your website and find out that it’s not available in their language. However, if they can find your SEO content translated into their language, they’re more likely to stick around. This lowers bounce rates and increases dwell times, which translates into even better SEO results.
Savings on paid search campaigns
The magic of SEO is that SEO-translated content that ranks high on SERPs is essentially free advertising. Once you’ve managed to achieve a top position, all you have to do is maintain it. Paid search campaigns, on the other hand, are ongoing costs that can quickly eat into your budget. By ranking high on SERPs, you can save money on paid search campaigns and invest those savings into other areas of your marketing strategy.
A cutting edge over the competition
If your SEO-translated content is optimised for multiple languages, you’ll have an advantage over any competitor who hasn’t localised their website. This can give you a competitive edge and make your business stand out from the crowd. After all, users are more likely to trust a website that’s available in their language than one that isn’t – especially if you’re operating in a niche market.
By the same token, if your competitors are already localising their content, then optimising your own website for multiple languages is essential if you want to keep up.
What qualifies someone as an expert in SEO localisation?
SEO-specialised marketing translators and copywriters will examine things such as the popular search engines in a specific country, local search behaviour, cultural influence on searching habits, etc., to optimise content for each target market (which results in higher rankings, more traffic, and more sales).
Despite many translators and copywriters claiming to be ‘SEO experts’, there aren’t many true experts capable of advising clients beyond keywords.
Real SEO connoisseurs are well versed in content SEO (the optimisation of copy with the intention to bring in traffic from organic search), in back-end or technical SEO (like improving page speed, internal linking, or usability), and in off-page SEO (actions taken outside of the website itself, such as backlinks, social media strategy, influencer marketing, etc.)
If their knowledge of technical SEO is not proficient, true SEO localisation virtuosos will, at least, be proficient users of content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, which include an SEO-friendly back-end, and of SEO software, which adds to the service that they provide through competitor analysis, site auditing, back-link analysis, and other features.
This comprehensive knowledge will allow SEO translators to advise their clients on whether potential problems with SEO ranking in target markets are due to content optimisation issues (e.g., an unfavourable choice of keywords, which they can fix themselves) or to technical or strategic factors related to web development or the company’s overall marketing approach.
Specialists of this kind are highly sought after and very hard to find because very few self-proclaimed SEO translators or SEO copywriters have the skills and the verifiable expertise (in the form of high conversion metrics in foreign markets as a result of their services) necessary to skyrocket their clients’ ROI.
True SEO experts know where and how to look at how people are finding competitor pages, at dwell time (how long visitors spend on your page), bounce rates (percentage of one-page sessions), how people move through a site, if they’re doing what the client wants them to do, etc.
Factors to consider for the success of your SEO localisation efforts
If good international rankings were only about translating the website content, then multilingual SEO would be a piece of cake. But it’s not that simple. SEO localisation can only yield good results if supported by on-page, off-page, and technical SEO optimisations.
Here are some of the key factors for successful SEO localisation:
- Technical considerations: Make sure that the local website follows international SEO best practices and is crawlable, indexable, speedy, and optimised for mobile devices. Set up hreflang and canonical tags correctly, ensure that the website is secure (HTTPS), and create a well-structured sitemap. The best content in the world won’t rank if the technical aspects of the website are not well set up.
- User experience: Optimise the website for users of the target culture. For example, ensure that the forms are easy to fill, that links are easily clickable, that images and colours used on the website don’t carry any negative connotations in the target culture, etc.
- Local content: In addition to translating existing content into the local language (which might require creative translation or transcreation), create new original content specifically for each country in which you will be operating. This can include anything from blog posts and articles to videos and podcasts.
- Keywords research: Research the relevant keywords for each target market. Most of the time, keywords don’t translate directly, so you need to find out which words people in each country are using when searching for a particular product or service.
- Specific search engines: Different countries use different search engines, so if you’re targeting a specific country be sure to optimise your website for the most popular search engine in that particular place, because not every search engine uses the same rules.
And if you’re still seeing disparities in your ranking results after optimising for these three factors, you may need to look at these other ranking-related issues.
Do SEO translators use CAT tools?
Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are software programs that help translators with various stages of the translation process. For example, most CAT tools work by segmenting the source text and presenting each segment (usually a sentence) in a visually digestible fashion.
Translators can then work with each segment individually, and the tools remember which segments have been translated already (in a translation memory, which serves as a reference by providing easy access to previously translated, approved content) and keep track of how much work has been accomplished.
Most CAT tools also come with quality assurance (QA) checks as well, so that the translator can check for errors or typos in their work as part of the T-E-P (translation, editing, and proofreading) process.
Having said that, SEO localisation involves more than just language and translation, and the benefits of CAT tools are diminished when it comes to some aspects of SEO localisation. For example:
|Regular translation||SEO localisation|
|In regular translation, CAT tools can be used for content consistency (by ensuring that key terms are translated consistently from one language to another).||When it comes to SEO localisation, Google values synonymy and keyword diversity, so lack of consistency is actually desirable (as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of the content).|
|In regular translation, there tends to be a phrase-to-phrase correspondence between the source and target languages.||Correspondence is not always possible when it comes to SEO localisation, as whole sections may be added, dropped, or re-structured according to the needs of the target market.|
|In regular translation, hyperlinks (if present in the source text, e.g., a business document with links to a website) are usually scarce and can be manually updated after exporting the target text.||SEO localisation involves a lot of linking and anchor text optimisation: hyperlinks need to be optimised for the target market by picking out relevant anchor text and linking to pages that have relevance in the respective language/market. This is normally a time-consuming task to accomplished with a CAT tool, unless the software unpacks the link and shows the tags, the anchor text, and the linked URL separately.|
|In regular translation, the goal is normally to preserve meaning and ensure content accuracy.||In SEO localisation, the goal is to make the content as optimised for search engines as possible, which means that some of the text might need complete reformulation. This is often the case with headings, meta titles, and meta descriptions, in an effort to maximise click-throughs, time on page, and conversions.|
Ultimately, CAT tools still have a role to play in SEO localisation (specifically in the areas of terminology management – you can upload bilingual glossaries containing keyword equivalents – and quality assurance), but they are not as effective compared to regular translation projects due to the nature of SEO work.
Therefore, the best approach would be to use CAT tools as a complement to manual SEO localisation.
Is there a place for machine translation in SEO localisation?
Machine translation (MT) is a technology that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to convert text from one language into another. While machine translation tools have improved in recent years, they are still far from perfect, as the quality of the translation depends largely on the quality of the training data, the domain of the text being translated, and the ability of the underlying technology to understand context.
In terms of SEO localisation, machine translation can be useful in certain cases, such as when translating large volumes of text quickly, or when dealing with content that is not particularly complex (like user-generated content).
However, machine translation should never be used for mission-critical purposes, such as translating highly creative content, localising keywords (MT cannot check local keyword relevance or popularity) or optimising meta tags.
Moreover, artificial intelligence (not just machine translation, but tools like chatGPT, too) should never be used as a substitute for human translators. It should always be up to expert SEO translators to:
- Decide if parts of the text should be re-written, or altogether omitted
- Evaluate the relevance of the content to the target market
- Ensure proper localisation of terminology
- Optimise headings, meta titles, and meta descriptions for maximum SEO effect
- Assess the adequacy of visual elements (images or videos) for the target audience
- Incorporate synonyms and other techniques that can improve SERP rankings.
At the end of the day, machine translation is a powerful tool – but it should be used with caution in SEO localisation projects. Just like you wouldn’t put your finest china in the dishwasher, you shouldn’t trusting machine translation to get your SEO localisation project done correctly.
Effective SEO localisation is essential for international expansion
The intricate relationship between language, culture, and search engine algorithms means that effective SEO localisation is a tricky – but essential – part of any international expansion strategy.
If done correctly, SEO localisation can help you reach new markets, grow your customer base, and increase your revenue. But if it’s not done correctly, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money with little to show for it.
The key is to work with a professional marketing and SEO translation company (hiya!) that can help you navigate the complexities of international SEO and ensure that your website is visible to users in each target market.
This guide should have given you a good overview of what’s involved in SEO localisation, and how to go about it. By following the tips in this article, you can make sure that your website is visible to users in all of your target markets – and that you’re able to turn that traffic into customers.
And if you need a helping hand, we’re here! We’re specialist team of SEO translators for most European languages working as a hybrid company: you can hire one of us as a freelancer, or all of us as a boutique agency. Reach out to us!
Author: Maria Scheibengraf
Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.